One of the stranger aspects of human nature is our capacity to take delight in things that are awful. For instance, in my late teens I embarked upon an intense study of the horror movies I had been forbidden to watch as a child: Dracula flicks starring Christopher Lee, or B-movies with Vincent Price. None were scary, most were boring and then I stumbled upon Dracula AD 1972, in which the vampire drinks the blood of groovy people in 70s London. It was awful. And yet I enjoyed it more than the others, as my tears of boredom alternated with laughter and amazement at the poor judgment of it all. I was hooked: bad films were good.
Around that time a British TV channel broadcast a bunch of Godzilla movies. Destroy All Monsters was entertaining: it had lots of monsters and some amusingly cheesy special effects, but after that the series descended into pure awfulness, as the directors repeated exactly the same plot, sometimes even reusing the same footage in different films. How bad can these get? How cheap? How corny? I was obviously not alone in my fascination as these films enjoy a lively existence on DVD to this day.
And so I continued my odyssey, subjecting myself to some of the world’s most terrible films. Something must have been in the air in John Major’s Britain, because after Godzilla there was a season of “the worst films ever made” on TV; I recall Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Plan 9 from Outer Space, wherein the director got his chiropractor to hold a cloak over his face and pretend to be the movie’s purported star Bela Lugosi, who had in fact died three years earlier. The others I have forgotten, I have seen so many bad films now that a vast ocean of awfulness stretches ahead of me to the infinite horizon and I have quite lost my bearings.
I have also grown numb. Dracula AD 1972 is probably not bad enough for me now; my system requires more extreme shocks. Thus last week I dedicated two hours of the life that remains to me to watching Pulgasari, Kim Jong-il’s Godzilla rip-off.
The plot is simple: a tiny monster made of rice eats iron, grows big, defeats the evil king, saves the farmers, explodes, turns into a little monster, turns into a blue light and then enters a lady’s tummy. The End. If that sounds bad, it’s because it is - so bad in fact that I had to take breaks every twenty minutes.
But once it was done, I wasn’t sure it was as bad as legend makes it out to be; it’s definitely better than Godzilla vs. Gigan, for instance. Perhaps this is because Pulgasari was made by a celebrated South Korean director, who was only in Pyongyang because Kim Jong-il had kidnapped him and ordered him to make films. The scenes were brief, and the monster was on screen quite a lot. Kim had even hired Godzilla’s puppeteer/actor to play Pulgasari. I had expected a much more brutal boredom.
It’s crucial, meanwhile, for the connoisseur of rotten cinema to draw a sharp distinction between the bad and the merely mediocre. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a bloated, expensive, pointless remake, but it is not awful. It does nothing, it merely exists. Rottenness forces a visceral reaction; it reminds us we are alive, makes us excruciatingly aware of the passage of time, of the vanity of human effort.
It’s difficult to create anything good, and nearly impossible to make something excellent. So much can go wrong. Some of the best worst films started with sincere intentions. Ed Wood, director of Plan 9 was passionate about his movies. But somehow it always went awry, whether through a lack of money, or talent, or judgment, or all of the above, but still he created. There’s dignity in that. Other bad films are the opposite: deeply cynical, designed to exploit our fascination with violence and sex, often little more than a lurid title applied to garbage with the intention of tricking the viewer into parting with his money. Either way, there’s always something profoundly human bubbling away beneath the surface of a bad movie.
You must however expect awfulness if you are to enjoy a bad film. If you anticipate quality but encounter catastrophic failure, you may never recover. Consider the Star Wars prequels. When I went to see The Phantom Menace I knew I was no longer the boy who had been amazed by the original trilogy and asked only that it be good, not excellent. Friends, I would have settled for mediocrity. But of course it was apocalyptically bad. And then there were the others.
There was no joy in the awfulness of these films, though they too were very human, in that they were destroyed by a combination of overweening ego, delusion and far too much money. Are these the worst bad movies of all time? Possibly. Though it is the product of an evil totalitarian system and was made by a kidnap victim, Pulgasari has more charm and, yes, integrity than any of the later Star War films, which were made by free people with buckets of cash. It’s a wonderful world.